On Monday evening I made my way to BAM to catch a series of Short films featuring James Baldwin and got more than a mouthful to talk about and share. The films: Baldwin’s Nigger and MyChildhood Part 2: James Baldwin’s Harlem were showcased as a part of BAM CInématek series A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement.
“In these two short films, literary titan James Baldwin explores the perils of false consciousness and his coming of age in Harlem.”
Both films painted a portrait of classic Baldwin. Honest, profound, always eloquent and quite tormented by his own reality. I also found it great that these films were shown at the beginning of Harlem week!
I loved the beginning of Baldwins Nigger and its connection to the title of the film. Baldwin recounts an encounter with a West Indian Guard at a British Museum who asks Baldwin about his Ethnic Origins and becomes frustrated when Baldwin can only trace his lineage back two generations and 3 States, one being reduced to simply “Harlem”, not even identifying with the entirety of New York City, Let alone the entirety of the state. His history, like most African Americans was washed away and his only record of where he ‘came from’ is a bill of sale. As Baldwin so candidly put it, it wasn’t his fault that he had no way of knowing and it wasn’t the guards fault for not understanding but that didn’t make it any less real.
I loved this segment in particular because I have, in the modern day, had the same experience as Baldwin in that context. I have been approached on many occasions and asked about my ethnicity and really had no answer. It began in grade school as usual “What are you mixed with?” Then it followed me into adulthood, new friends and acquaintances and even patrons at work asking “Where’s your family from?” “Whats your background?” and the still common but not so mature way of asking “What are you mixed with?”
By this time I was already insecure, no, indignant about the fact that I did not know. I also wasn’t prepared to explain the history of Africans’ Diaspora (A gentle name for slavery and other crimes committed against humans in Africa) and how it resulted in me being American so I would respond kindly “Yes, I’m mixed. With my mother and my father.” In the event that I wasn’t trying to perfume the ugly stench that emanated from the ugly things that were done to my ancestors with humor and was taking the person who asked seriously, I would simply respond “I don’t know.” Other times I really wouldn’t be thinking about it and I would answer “I’m from West Palm Beach.”
While I’m typing this it seems hilarious on some level that I would say I’m from a city in South Florida and also very sad that I don’t have the luxury of knowing where I come from. I know my fathers family is from the Bahamas but they, of course, did not originate there. The fact is, I am an American, whether I like it or not. America is my home, English is my first language, the currency I carry about is dollars, I vote, I have never lived anywhere else and I believe that the Constitution is one of the greatest governing documents because it can be amended. I do consider my relationship as an African American to this country to be a bad romance but it is my home, as it was the Baldwins home, I suppose some time ago some white slave owner with the last name Johnson had his turn with my ancestors and now I can’t tell where I come from.
I have gone astray from the intention of this post but that is what happens when anyone speaks about the works and insight and grave honesty that Baldwin shared. I hope to make it back to BAM to see another segment of the series before it comes to an end and seeing that it will be my third visit in a month, I am seriously considering a membership!
I am glad I made the choice to go see these films and listen to the dialogue and Q&A lead by author Darryl Pinckney and scholar Rich Blint (Pictured Above) even after having left my wallet at work and racing home just with just enough time to make it back to BAM and grab a decent seat!
The A Time for Burning Series ends on August 28th and marks the Anniversary of the March on Washington.
You can watch Baldwins Nigger here!
Thanks for reading about my adventures and realities!